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Politics

We fact-checked former Ocoee Commissioner George Oliver’s Friday press statement

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By
Norine Dworkin

Editor in Chief

Monday, December 11, 2023

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Norine Dworkin

Former Ocoee Commissioner George Oliver III holds a press conference Dec. 8, 2023, outside of Ocoee City Hall. He's joined by State Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis, Wes Hodge, candidate for Orange County Supervisor of Elections, Russell Drake, founder and CEO of Build Black Daily, Timothy Ayers, president of the Orange County Democratic Black Caucus and Vivian Lyte-Johnson, District 4 resident.

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Ocoee’s election rescheduling, city attorney retirement and appointment of a Charter Review Commission have been the subject of much misinformation — some of which surfaced in former Commissioner Oliver’s press statement, below. VoxPopuli explains what’s true, what's not and what needs context.


Thank you all for coming out. Welcome to our great city of Ocoee. Thank you for coming out for this press conference. And I would like to thank each and every one of you guys for showing up and coming in support of this important press conference and the cause that we are all here for.


My name is George Oliver. I am the former Ocoee City Commissioner for District 4. And getting into this, I want to say that over the last several months, our fair city has been under attack. Close to 9,000 residents, registered voters of District 4 has (sic) had their rights taken away from them. Our basic civil liberties have become a part of unscrupulous discussions by our elected officials.


[This needs context. The city commission voted 4-1 on Nov. 7 to disqualify Oliver from the March 19, 2024 election after he had qualified for the election when it was going to be held in June.


Voting is a civil right, and being unable to vote for one’s candidate of choice is unquestionably a denial of that right. But even acknowledging America's two tiers of justice, to suggest that District 4 residents had many "rights” and “basic civil liberties” "taken away" is a stretch. Basic civil liberties covered under the Bill of Rights include freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, the right to petition your government with grievances and carry a firearm. There’s also the right to a fair and speedy trial and protections against unreasonable search and seizure, self-incrimination, imprisonment without due process and cruel and unusual punishment.  None of these basic civil liberties were discussed by the commission, nor were any stripped.]


On Jan. 10, 2023, I resigned my seat in order to run for mayor. The irrevocable resignation was effective March 21, 2023. I resigned in accordance to the Florida Resign-to Run law, which is set forth in section 99.012 of the Florida Statutes.


On March 21, the city commission held a special session to approve a special election to be held within 90 days, according [to] the city charter. The election was scheduled for June 13, 2023. The plain language of our city charter states, “The city must hold a special election within 90 days of a vacated seat if there are no general city elections within 12 months,” and I repeat, that if there are no general city elections held within 12 months. On March 21, 2023, the city did not have an election scheduled for 2023. The general election, the city general election, the next one to be held, was in March of 2024.


[This is false. That’s not what the Ocoee city charter says. The city charter (Art. III, Section C-17 (c) ) says, “If a general city election will not be held within twelve (12) months, the successor shall be elected at a special election, which shall be called by the City Commission within ninety (90) days of the vacancy.”


Legal language is specific. The charter does not say “hold” an election. It says the “special election shall be called” or, in other words, announced. As Attorney Rick Geller explained as he walked commissioners through the legalese, the fact that the words “to be held” are not included is significant. Geller cited a Florida Supreme Court ruling, which determined that “calling an election” is not the same as "holding an election.”


Beyond that, as Oliver stated, the next general city election was March 19, 2024 — 363 days from when his resignation became effective, just within the required 12-month period. In his own explanation to commissioners, Geller used process of elimination to show that the March election was a general city election, reasoning that it wasn’t a special election and it wasn’t a regular election, which occurs on odd-numbered years. With only three possible categories of election, the March election had to be a general city election.]


During the April 18, 2023, city commission meeting, the commissioner of District 1 and the mayor challenged the city attorney, Scott Cookson's opinion regarding the charter for the June 13 special election. They contended that the commission could just create a general election for March 19, 2023 (sic).


[This needs context. It was three Ocoee residents who initially raised questions about language in the city charter that suggested a special election did not need to be held, at city expense, when the presidential preference primary would be held within the next 12 months. In other words, the idea didn't originate with the commissioners, and they didn't “just create a general election.” There was already an primary election scheduled that many Ocoee residents would vote in.


Bill Cowles, the Orange County Supervisor of Elections, has been urging municipalities to hold their elections in concert with the county since at least 1997 to take advantage of economies of scale and allow the county to pick up the tab for ballot printing, renting polling locations and hiring polling staff. On March 19, 2024, nine municipalities, including Ocoee, will participate in Orange County Municipal Election Day.


Commissioners decided to bring in an outside independent legal expert to render an opinion regarding election scheduling. Rick Geller, a board-certified government law specialist from the Winter Park law firm Fishback Dominick — now serving as city attorney — was that expert. After going through the charter, he strongly recommended rescheduling the election.]


The decision would force the city from being a non-partisan election to a partisan election if we hold an election in March 2024. The most important part of why they chose that date had nothing to do with timing. It was because they could deceive most of the Democratic and independent voters into not showing up at the polls because March 19 is a partisan presidential primary. The fact that the commission created an election that previously did not exist makes one to believe that they intentionally sought out to disenfranchise the voters of District 4.


[This is pants-on-fire false. This decision had everything to do with timing. Geller told VoxPopuli that had the Charter Review Commission not been formed at the April 18 city commission meeting — prior to Geller being hired to weigh in — the June 13 election could have taken place as planned. As Geller explained in his presentation to commissioners, forming a Charter Review Commission changed the election timing because the charter amendments produced by the commission don't require a special election for a vote. The Charter Review Commission developed 13 amendments that will be on the March 19, 2024 ballot for the entire city to vote on. These include a 12-month residency requirement (as most municipalities have) to prevent situations like the Orlando candidate who rented an apartment to run against District 3 Commissioner Richard Firstner, and a shorter timeline for candidates to resign to run for another office so their successors can run in the same election, thereby preventing situations like this one in District 4.]


On April 25, 2023, the city attorney submitted a letter of resignation after 13 years of service.


[This needs context. This statement is true. However, the timing of former City Attorney Scott Cookson’s retirement sparked rumors that he resigned because he was angry with the commission’s decision regarding the election rescheduling. That supposition even became part of the evidentiary record for Oliver’s lawsuit. Cookson told VoxPopuli the two events were unrelated. Mayor Rusty Johnson told VoxPopuli that Cookson continues to do legal work for the city.]


During the May 2, 2023, commission meeting, the commission created a resolution to rescind their previously approved special election, scheduled for June 13, 2023, citing that they could save the citizens $10,000 by having the election March 19, 2024. The supervisor of elections would foot the bill for that.


[Mostly true. The commission voted on the resolution at the meeting; it wasn’t created during the meeting.]


However, the election could have also been held Nov. 7, 2023, which made a nonpartisan election. They choose March 19, 2024, to make it political.


[This is false. Again, March 19, 2024, was chosen because the Orange County supervisor of elections requested that all municipalities hold their elections the same day.]


During the Nov. 7, 2023 commission meeting, the commission discussed one regular agenda item: how to disqualify me as a new … how to qualify me for the newly made up March 19, 2024 election. 


[This is true. The discussion was not solely about Commissioner Oliver's disqualification. Commissioners inquired about the ability to challenge candidate qualifications to avoid repeats of the Orlando candidate running in District 3. But a substantial porton of the discussion focused on barring Commissioner Oliver from running in 2024.] 


The four out of five elected elected officials contended that the city charter for section C-17 does not allow a commissioner who vacated their seat to run and possibly succeed him or herself. The new city attorney stated that when he reads the word “successor,” it means two people. Therefore, Commissioner Oliver cannot succeed himself. The attorney further stated that however the commission interprets the section of the charter, it could also be subject to future litigation.


[This is true. Geller, who became city attorney after Cookson retired, said his interpretation of "successor" was that the word referred to two different people and that the "successor would not be the one who created the vacancy." He told commissioners they were "free to disagree" with his interpretation, and added that under C-10 of the charter, decisions made by the commision were subject to review by the courts.] 


The commission created a very unclear motion to have the city clerk disqualify me as a candidate. On November 16, 2023, the city clerk mailed me a certified letter, informing me that the city commission voted 4-1 in support of a motion finding that I am not qualified to run for District 4 city commission seat during the newly made up general city election on March 19, 2024.


[False. Again, the election was not “made up.” This is the presidential primary election. It was always scheduled for this date in Florida.]


On Nov. 27, 2023, my wife and I hired [law firm] GrayRobinson to file an emergency injunction on my behalf. The injunction challenged the city's commission's interpretation of the charter regarding my qualifications to run. On Dec. 5, the court heard argument from both sides regarding the city having quasi-judicial authority and its interpretation of the word “successor.”


The court also heard arguments presented by our attorney that the city commission did not have the authority to challenge my qualification to run. Therefore, on Dec. 7, 2023, the courts ruled in our favor that the city commission did not have the authority to challenge the qualifications of my candidacy for office, and it is not spelled out in our city charter.


[This is true. Orange County Ninth Judicial Circuit Court ruled that the Ocoee City Commission had overstepped, and had authority only over elected members of the commission, not candidates.]


Therefore, I stand before you today as a qualified candidate for District 4, Ocoee District 4 candidate, for the election. We've invited special guests along with some of the citizens to speak regarding this obvious abuse of power and the conspiracy to disenfranchise thousands of citizens.


[This needs context. By definition, a conspiracy is a crime by a group. If Oliver has evidence the commission violated Sunshine Law before its Nov. 7 vote, he should produce it.]

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